Bob Wightman

A Cold Night

It's been six days now since the accident I reflect as the morning cold creeps through the tent preventing sleep. This night, as for the previous five, the thoughts and consequences of that day have interrupted my sleep though I can barely brave the memory of the event itself. Today if all goes well we’ll be back at Base Camp after 18 days away.

The hill had seemed so benign when we started the climb, so safe (as mountains go) at least as far as our intended route was concerned. Indeed snow and rockfall had been virtually non-existent, lulling us into a false sense of security. All that vanished on the twelfth day.

The others had looked to me as if I should make the decision, At least I had had a short time to think of the options as I climbed the ropes to join them. And what to tell them? Up or Down. But it’s never that simple is it? Down would have been the easy way out, save body and soul but not honour, up would be a test of all three. Not that such noble thoughts passed through my head as I approached the others, more the growing awareness of the discomfort of my immediate future. A brief explanation. They believed me or at least gave the pretence of doing so, then without really thinking I made the decision “Up” or, more truthfully “I’m prepared to go on if you can put up with me”.

So up it was, or rather down at first, to begin the couloir. Two pitches up this mind befuddled I headed out into the centre and easy though avalanche prone ground. I made quick progress to the col at the couloirs' head. The others castigated me for my choice of line though I suspected they understood why, it had been a rash move. We rearranged the lines and descended to carry our gear back up to that night’s camp on the col in a wind scoured hollow.

“Oh shit!” I look round, “No!” I follow his eyes down the couloir. Unclipped, impossible! My heart sinks as this stupid error hits home. The image recedes as I wake up shivering. This night is filled not with sleep but with ambivalence over our, my decision, maybe we should have descended rather than prolong the agony.

The morning eventually brings cloud, sleet and snow. I’m to descend to bring up the ropes, the others pushing the route again up a series of rock steps. Half a ropelength and I'm on my own, shrouded in the mirk of cloud and regret.

At the foot of the ropes I don’t look round but get on with the job in hand and head back up the ropes away from the scene. Moving up with the sleet and snow on the ropes is both unpleasant and unnerving as the jumars slip occasionally. The ropes that I’m carrying are soaked, this makes them an even heavier burden, and it is several hours before I return sodden and tired to the col. The others have set up the next camp. Supper is a dispiriting affair, the night more so as I am left alone with my thoughts and fears.

Again little sleep fills the dark hours, my mind is too busy thinking of the reasons why. We had been two pairs, each of one old hand and one newcomer to the big hills. This way there should have been little imbalance or envy between the two. Even so I should have kept an eye on him, just to make sure you understand.

Always double check things in the mountains. I always did, I was sure that everything had been correct at the belay before I dropped onto the ice in the couloir. So what had gone wrong? Surely he hadn’t unclipped? No! That was unthinkable, irrational unless.... no so was that.

The night and my thoughts crawled towards the dawn.

Next day we pull everything up to the next camp, apart from the ropes over the rock steps, we’ll have enough now to get to the summit. Ahead lies The Fortress, the crux, unavoidable as all possible lines converge here, the other ways are suicidal.

As ever the night comes and with it cold and doubt, as ever. What had happened? If I had been facing him I should know, at least I think so. But I had been engrossed in my preparations for the couloir, in my thoughts on what I might need and what I should leave behind at the belay. The Belay! No that was still there with his sack, the tent and the rest of the rack strung along it. I am still suffering the consequences though and I hardly sleep.

An awkward step, a narrow gully and a snow slop and we are at the foot of The Fortress, a bastion of rock that wouldn’t be out of place on El Cap. The main line is straight ahead, a wide ice-filled chimney dog-legs to a narrower crack, which in turn leads to a ledge and a lessening in angle. And difficulties we hope. Above this buttress there are no major obstacles in our way.

The chimney, a cold Stygian slot, looks evil so evil that I search for an alternative but there isn’t one.

For once the sense of scale deceives me, What I thought was back and foot is less than shoulder width, verglassed on both sides with a sliver of ice in a narrower slot at the back. The others assure me that it’s just my source of pitch. More like a Nemesis I think to myself.

I advance, it rears up until it towers over me vertical and dark. An awkward move gains a Friend placement under a chockstone, one hard pull leads to another. Techniques from no textbook but born of fear lead to more difficulties and a couple of runners. Above the middle section rises ever steeper. Several moves later I am desperate for protection, so much so that I try to chip a nut slot in the verglass. It doesn’t work. I carry on, panting, sweating until at last gear, an easing then a belay with the last of my gear. I lean back, despite the altitude I am caked in sweat.

Forty five metres had taken me one and three quarter hours, shattered I tied off the rope, a jumar then an awkward traverse on tricky nut placements leads out of the now cold slot to a wildly exposed stance. We haven’t got time or the gear to tackle the iced up off-width ahead, so we fix the rope to return tomorrow. Then back to camp to another night of cold and worry.

The following day the others press on, I feel alone, shivering in the cold sun. Ten metres of off-width take an hour and a half, the continuation crack not much less. This leads to a ledge and choices, none look pleasant, ideas are called and rejected. Deadlock. The day wears on, success moves on. We return to camp to discuss what to do.

Food is running out and we haven’t enough for all of us to go for the summit. Only two will go. It’s decided. Lots are drawn, rather a spoon is tossed and I am one of two. But why?

The night is long and without sleep, this time though a tinge of excitement and expectation as well as the dread helps to keep me awake.

The morning brings unusual cloud swelling all around. Discussion then decision. Though unanimous none are convinced, nevertheless down we go. All none essential items are buried, the sacks are heavy enough as it is and there’s a lot of mountain to descend.

All day we move down. It begins to sleet as we search out the anchors to descend the smooth second tower. I crouch against the rock, beginning to loathe this mountain. The weather does little to lift my spirits. Below the ropes get stuck - twice, we have to cut the first but we eventually free the second. Things like this only help to cause friction between us. We are tired.

Darkness falls as we near the foot of the buttress. Two hours later we reach Camp Two minus much nervous energy. The tents are up in an instant despite our exhaustion or because of it. Non cooked food is consumed before sleep overtakes me. Tomorrow we should be down.

If we had descended after the accident I don’t think that I would be in the psychological and physical state that I now find myself. Those waiting at Base Camp have yet to learn of the accident, our radio conversations have kept away from any mention of our loss. They might have come to the wrong conclusion.

Descending the ropes to the foot of the couloir I take off my sack, clipping it twice into the belay. There being no ledge makes putting crampons on difficult. I drop the five feet or so to the ice. He passes me the gear I require. Racking up, I am startled by a cry. “Oh shit!” I spin round and look up “No!” I follow his eyes down the couloir to a rucksack speeding away. I look back at the belay - MY sack! I return my gaze to watch as the sack and all its contents: sleeping bag and mat; clothes etc. head to their doom.

Two ropes drop off the sack before it disappears into the lower couloir. Descending to pick these up I peer over the edge in the vain hope that my sack is just below. Maybe caught on a spike or perched on a ledge but it is not to be. I climb back to the foot of the ropes and begin to climb.

The final morning we continue down, reaching the glacier with one wire, one peg and a dozen crabs left. A welcoming party is there to lend a hand with the gear back to Base Camp. It is only now that they find out what has happened. W hy continue? They ask: I wanted to climb the mountain. Why Else?